Not even the early evening downpour would dampen the mood of the event. Many people turned up to celebrate the 25 years of Watoto Children’s Choir at Watoto Downtown. A journey that started in 1994 was now a silver jubilee long.
If there is a thing as living hope, then it is the story of the Watoto Children’s Choir. The idea of the choir came up when the then Kampala Pentecostal Church (KPC) began running the Watoto babies home. The home took in babies that would be abandoned by their parents.
KPC was founded in 1984 by Pastors Gary and Marilyn Skinner who were on a mission to establishing an English speaking church in the downtown Kampala. At that time, there was a lot of political turmoil in the country that made it hard for one to stay. There were a lot of murders and the hope of seeing tomorrow was not guaranteed. To anyone. In 1986, peace began returning to the entire nation with the coming of the new government led by Mr Yoweri Museveni. However, there were a number of things from the past that needed to be fixed. The country had lost a lot of parents in the previous years and there were many orphaned children left unattended.
The evening of the 80s came with a new challenge that had not been witnessed before anywhere in the world, the HIV/AIDS scourge. In no record time, it had claimed very many lives. Again, many parents died, leaving behind more orphaned children. This time round, these little ones were also HIV positive. Without anyone to look after them, many of these children were left homeless. KPC decided to open up a babies home to take care of these innocent souls.
Gary tells this story with a pinch of sadness in his voice, “There were babies rescued from toilet pits, those abandoned at churches and police stations and other random places. We’d be contacted and they’d be brought to us. When they reached the age of two, we decided to get them to a bigger place where they would be able to grow up in a proper family.”
That is how the Watoto villages were started. Once the children reached the age of two, they were shifted to the villages where they were assigned a mother to take care of them.
“The children’s choir came up as a way of building the children’s confidence as they told their stories around the world and uplifting other people for the sake of Jesus Christ,” says Gary Skinner. He adds, “God was using these little children who once had lost all hope of life to tell a different story.”
Today, it is easier to sit down and have this story written down because of the waters that have flown under this bridge but it was never like that in the beginning.
The year was 1994. Babies had been rescued and a number of them were now growing up. The idea of a children’s choir was taking shape and there was need to have this kick off.
The first trip was to the UK. A team led by Gary and Marilyn set out to go for a tour with the children. However, the team was not very well equipped. Dorcas and Esther were among the children in the choir then. They recall how Marilyn had to get travel tickets on credit from British Council and they had to make do with the little they had. Gary was the booking agent, team leader and upon getting to UK, he had to acquire a driving license as he was the team driver as well.
There were times they had no accommodation and they would pitch tents at the church they were going to be performing. There were times it was so cold and the only place to find warmth was in the yellow bus.
At one point there was a shortage of food and Marilyn reached out to one of the McDonald’s food point and asked them to allow the children sing in exchange for food. Such were the challenges of the first trip.
The following year, better plans were made and the tour was a bit better. The process always involved more than the children.
Over the years things have been changing. Doors have opened in places no one expected. The first trip was to the UK before it expanded to the USA, today there have been shows all over the world. But the most interesting bit of it is that a number of churches, parliaments, town halls and other public spaces have opened up their doors and invited the children in. The children have sung out their hearts and shared their stories and people have been moved.
Lorne Hamlyn is the director of Watoto Canada and he recalls, “The first day my wife Krista and I heard the children sing, they sang into our hearts.” That was a trigger to events that changed their lives. They decided to come down to Uganda to take part in the amazing work of Watoto Children’s Choir. Before long, they were on the road with the children as team leaders of choirs 20 and 25 to the UK, US and Canada.
The choirs have always travelled with a support team of trainers, backup singers along with the team leaders. Over the years, there are so many fruits born from the choirs. Out of the many teams are a number of people who have gone on to serve as pastors on the Watoto church pastoral team. They include, Edward Mwesigye (Ntinda), Derrick Ogwal and his wife(Kansanga), and Brian Abaho(Downtown) . A number of other people still moved on to serve in different capacities not only in the church but also other disciplines.
The story of the choir has grown beyond leaps and bounds. Today, the choir has 13 international offices that coordinate and work out the travel programs.
One time while on their way to Philadelphia, the choir received an invite to perform at the White House. The initial request was to sing two songs before President George Bush and wife, Laura but they ended up going on and on and on before the children were hosted to a dinner. One of the girls also excitedly recalls the time they sang at Birmingham palace before Queen Elizabeth on her birthday.
These memories have been eternally etched on the children’s minds and they will live to share them, however, there is more to that than the memories. In certain cities, every time they announce the coming of Watoto Children’s Choir, all auditoriums are filled to capacity. The children’s stories are amazing but the message of the renewed hope for the world is more pronounced. The stories have rebuilt, renewed and restored a number of souls that have turned to Christ. Because of these stories, there are so many people who have come to volunteer and also partner with Watoto. The Watoto villages have grown but more importantly there are more partners that have come on board to help sponsor a child. These children in homes have grown into responsible citizens. They have attained university degrees and they have assumed respectable roles in society. Some of the children have been reunited with their families. And yet the work goes on.
A one Kalinimi, a mutoto, leads the Watoto music academy that trains the children in the villages to acquire music training from writing songs to playing music instruments. Before, the choirs sang other people’s songs. Today, they are singing their own. Some of the albums over the years include; Anameremeta, Telephone To Jesus, My Africa, This is My Story and We Will Go.
In the 25 years of the choir, one thing has been evident, that having faith over fear is the best way to go. The silver jubilee of the Watoto Children’s Choir falls at a time when choir 100 is preparing to go and sing in Australia in April. Almost every other day of the year, there is a Watoto Children’s Choir singing somewhere in the world.
photos by Watoto Media Team